The Sins of Youth

Colorado gambles millions on a second last chance for violent teens

In gentler times, kids like Richard, Aaron and Domingo might wind up on some psychiatrist's couch, trying to fathom the reasons for their crimes. But this is the Nineties, and YOS doesn't give a hoot about their reasons, so long as they change the behavior. Angry? Take anger-management classes and get over it. Gang problems? YOS makes rival gang members room together and bans all gang signs and expressions. Attitude adjustment? Right this way.

Gamez acknowledges that most residents will begin talking a good game before they truly begin to see the error of their ways. "A lot of kids will do the right thing for the wrong reason," he says. "But what happens over time is, we challenge their thinking that it's okay to hurt people, to attack and use people, to disrespect women. When we challenge them and they see other people who act differently and are successful, it shocks them. It's what we call a norms crisis."

Khakis like Richard are probably too new to the program to have had such a crisis. For that, you have to look a little further down the line, to the youths making their way through Phase One--like Ricardo and Ruben Villarreal, seventeen-year-old identical twins from Greeley. The Villarreals did their crime together; now they're doing their time together and trying to re-engineer each other in the process.

Both Villarreals were once major players in a gang in Greeley. Ricardo, who is two minutes older than Ruben, left the gang to get married and raise his son. But then Ruben got cut up by a member of another gang, and he and Ricardo went looking for the guy who did it. Even though Ruben was the shooter, they both wound up with five years in YOS for assault. If Ruben had been a better shot, it might have been life in prison for both of them.

"People can front in this program, but sooner or later they'll get in trouble and wind up in prison," says Ricardo. "Some people come here for the shorter sentence, but then they find out there's more to it. Me, I look at this as an opportunity to change myself."

"Just changing myself, from a criminal mentality to a positive one, I went through some struggles," says Ruben. "But my mom, the first day she visited she noticed that we'd changed. We were saying 'Yes, ma'am' and 'No, ma'am.' We just kind of got used to it."

Although the twins went through boot camp together, they're now assigned to different groups. Ricardo says his team has been held back by the foul-ups of a couple of slackers, but since the troublemakers were sent back to IDO for retraining, things are improving. "Since they went back for remediation, we're stepping up--showing positive influences to other groups by standing at attention, marching correctly, stuff like that," Ricardo reports. "They're coming back tomorrow morning, and as a group, we're going to tell them what the new expectations of Group Five are."

"There are people in here I knew on the streets of Greeley who belonged to another gang," says Ruben. "Now we're friends. Out on the street, we would have had a fight or shot each other. We finally got a chance to sit down and talk with each other."

But will they still be friends once they're back on the street--"on the outs," as they say in YOS? Ricardo shrugs. "Some people are going to make the wrong choices again, I guess," he says.

Ruben smiles. "Being in a gang is just a phase, you know. Like kids who skateboard or wear ripped jeans. Eventually, we're going to grow up. We're not going to have that mentality anymore. I think the others will, too. They don't want to be shot at, and they don't want their kids in that, either."

Curiously, what young offenders seem to like best about YOS is what so few of them have ever experienced before: its martial discipline and purposefulness. The educational requirement, which demands that everyone strive for at least a GED, is a particular hit. In contrast to the rest of DRDC, the wing that houses the program contains a beehive of classrooms. Several residents say they never liked school on the outs, but they like it here. Of course, no one had forced them to attend before.

"School is sacred here," says Gamez. "We've got a monster in the program, around 6-3 and over 300 pounds. When he got here, he couldn't read. Why? Because he's been intimidating teachers his whole life. You can't do that here."

It helps that the classes are small, the instruction individualized and the teachers, like much of the staff, younger and more enthusiastic than the typical DOC employee. It also helps to have the prospect of years of hard time hanging over the heads of your students. "I've spent twenty years in juvenile corrections," says Rawn Swarbrick, the lead teacher. "It's difficult for anything to work. But this works."

Swarbrick says YOS has "eighteen-year-olds who are just learning the alphabet and other guys doing advanced calculus." Properly motivated, he says, many of his students display a genuine hunger for learning and end up tutoring other students. "You take the guns and girls and drugs away, and they understand they can do this," he says.

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